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Role of traditional healers in fighting cervical cancer

guest column:Mutenta N Nyambe

It has been stated that about 80% of the African population rely on traditional medicines and practices as their primary source of healthcare.
Being the custodians of traditional African religion, customs and culture, the role played by traditional healers in the treatment and management of diseases among the African population cannot be ignored.

It is therefore of paramount importance for scientific researchers to find out and be aware of the collective perceptions of traditional health givers towards the diagnosis and treatment of highly prevalent life-threatening diseases such as cervical cancer and to make strong attempts at harmonizing the two knowledge frontiers where possible.

In Southern Africa, traditional healers give the presented ‘cancer’ a diagnostic name based on its physical manifestations. For instance, the common terminologies used to describe cervical cancer among traditional healers in Limpopo, South Africa, are Sesepidi, meaning ‘something that moves’ and Tlhagala, a Sesotho word meaning ‘to be worn out’.

Interestingly, these traditional terms are very similar in meaning to modern patho-physiological descriptions of cervical cancer such as ‘metastasis’ (Sesepidi) and tumour necrosis with foul vaginal discharge (Tlhagala).

Among the traditional healers of Ga-Mothapo in South Africa, cervical cancer is believed to be caused by chain smoking, multiple sexual partners (Ge mosadi a kitima le sekwata sa banna), poor nutrition, early engagement in sexual activity, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) (sekgalaka) and genetic predispositions.

Though conventional science concedes that the ‘precise’ etiological cause of cervical cancer is still unknown, there is a striking resemblance between the perspectives of traditional African practices and conventional science on the risk factors of cervical cancer.

African traditional healers often mention irregular per vaginal bleeding, painful coitus, post-coital bleeding, dysmenorrhoea, lower abdominal pains, abnormal or foul smelling vaginal discharge, cervical lesions, pyrexia, polyuria, painful uterine growth (polyps) and feeling as if the ‘womb is moving’ as signs and symptoms of cervical cancer.

These symptoms are very similar to those described in conventional medicine.

The African traditional treatment of cervical cancer focuses not only on curing the disease but also on promoting spiritual wellness and this is thought to be achieved by ‘extracting’ or ‘pulling’ the Sesepedi out of the uterus.

Traditional treatment regimen for cervical cancer normally incorporate oral administration of herbal decoctions, direct application of a crushed bluestone (mbapani) and Pentanisia prunelloides (stema-mollo) mixture onto the lesions, formulation and intra-vaginal insertion of herbal ‘pessaries’ (lekoni sekgalaka), steam inhalation and incisions.

These traditional methods are similar in delivery to those practiced in modern medicine such as oral administration of chemotherapy (herbal decoctions), surgical removal of tumours (incisions) and radiotherapy (steam treatment).

This shows that African traditional healers have, in their own terms, a concise understanding of cervical cancer pathophysiology, the knowledge to identify signs and symptoms of the disease, practical ethnomedicinal experience to provide care and adequate medicinal plant repositories to at least assist in the discovery of newer and more effective cervical cancer treatments.

Dialogue between traditional health practitioners and scientific researchers must therefore be encouraged to promote the sharing of information.

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